Triggered, intentional, and spontaneous coherence

I’ve been chatting about organizational coherence with a few folks, and this question intrigued me: what are the conditions that lead to coherence emerging? Sifting through my experience, I ended up with these three (still playing with the labels for them): triggered, intentional, and spontaneous. I also have this vague intuition that they are sequenced in relation to each other.

Imagine a team that finds itself in some existential crisis and must come together to overcome it. Here, the coherence is triggered: people align on the same goal to counteract the outside pressure. When I suddenly find the strength to jump that too-tall fence after being chased by a dog, my body is demonstrating triggered coherence. In response to a threat, I am capable of going beyond my imagined limits. The triggered coherence works the same way in teams, popularized by a familiar story trope of a bunch of underachievers going the distance in extreme circumstances.

When a team is at the feel-good apex of that story, it might even look like a team in the state of intentional coherence. However, there’s an important distinction: triggered coherence is reactive, and intentional coherence is proactive. An organization that is capable of intentional coherence decides to cohere in pursuit of a goal. When I go to the gym despite the aches and that sweet temptation of skipping just this once, my body comes together in intentional coherence. 

To spot intentional coherence, look for a mission, a sense of purpose to the action, not obviously attached to some perceived threat. The team pushes their limits intentionally, having enough confidence that together, they are greater than the sum of their individual capabilities.

At the top of the game, it might even feel like coherence is effortless within such a team, almost like the coherence is spontaneous rather than willful. However, as soon as the object of intention is captured (or is clearly within reach), it’s worth looking for signs for coherence dwindling. If it does, the coherence is likely more intentional than spontaneous.

What does spontaneous coherence look like? Typically, there’s minimal organization. Everything just kind of happens. People working in teams that exhibit spontaneous coherence are regularly surprised by the high quality and consistency of the outcomes they produce. “We just jammed around and I pitched in here and there, and whoa, this came together really nicely!” I have precious little experience working in spontaneous coherence environments, but there’s something about these environments that is phenomenally appealing. There’s none of the existential angst of the triggered coherence nor the teeth-gritting of the intentional coherence. It just feels like air, like “why wouldn’t I be doing this” — and I cherish every moment being part of such an environment.

My guess is that spontaneous coherence is also impermanent, and the overarching sense of joy and appreciation for the environment holds a tempting potential to become an intention in itself (“let’s keep doing this for as long as we can!”) — thus eventually sliding back into intentional coherence.

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